Home theater & stereo systems explained

Home theater advice: what are you gonna listen to?

The essential ingredients of both home theater systems and hi-fi stereos are similar:

  • Speakers (anywhere from two to ten or more)
  • Amplification
  • Processing
  • Source media like CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray.
  • For home theater, a big TV or projector.

Doesn't seem too complicated. So why is buying a home theater or stereo system so confusing and stressful? It's because while the essential ingredients can be counted on one hand, they come in a truly vast number of shapes and sizes, with a broad range of quality and usability.

Learning how to recognize quality, usability, and the "right" choice can be difficult. Sure, there are gobs of technical information everywhere you turn, and salespeople who seem ready with a product that's "perfect", no matter what your needs. But most technical info you'll see is insignificant compared to what is often not revealed: the gauge (thickness) and material content of the device's wiring, for example, or the design principles on which it is built. As for salespeople - is there any reason to assume they can sell you a product that's optimal for you? Nobody expects to hear a salesperson say "you know, we have a great receiver for you, but as for speakers, we don't carry the ones I recommend for you". The truth is, the information presented to you, the customer, by the audio and video electronics industry isn't designed to help you acquire your optimal system. It is designed to help you acquire your optimal system from among their new product lines.

That's why, if you want to ensure you get a good value and great sound, you have to educate yourself among the users, not the manufacturers and salespeople. Since you're reading this, you obviously have already made the choice to do so.

This Hub will educate you about the essential ingredients of an audio system, and describe the three primary ways you'll see the five basic ingredients of home theater and hi-fi "cooked". By the end, you should be able to recognize each type of audio system while you're out shopping, and know what to look for in each. You'll also be able to make a more educated decision as to which type of audio system you are going to purchase.

To start, take a look at the following schematic (click on image to enlarge):

Home Theater Diagram

Home theater diagram, with an aspirational number of subwoofers! ;-)
Home theater diagram, with an aspirational number of subwoofers! ;-)

The home theater diagram explained

Televisions have come a long way in the past 40 years!  This is one area where buying a unit that's just a few years old will get you the best value.
Televisions have come a long way in the past 40 years! This is one area where buying a unit that's just a few years old will get you the best value.
Speakers:  You need two for a stereo, and five or more for surround sound.  Many speakers today are designed to be used with subwoofers.  The balance between speakers and subwoofers often suffers in lower quality systems.
Speakers: You need two for a stereo, and five or more for surround sound. Many speakers today are designed to be used with subwoofers. The balance between speakers and subwoofers often suffers in lower quality systems.
Subwoofers:  Most subwoofers have their own internal amplifier.  Good balance between speakers and subwoofers can be difficult to achieve.  It depends on room shape, placement of speakers and subs in the room, and the quality of each component.
Subwoofers: Most subwoofers have their own internal amplifier. Good balance between speakers and subwoofers can be difficult to achieve. It depends on room shape, placement of speakers and subs in the room, and the quality of each component.
Blu-Ray is a high-definition medium that requires new equipment.  Vintage turntables, on the other hand, are abundant, inexpensive, and of generally high quality.
Blu-Ray is a high-definition medium that requires new equipment. Vintage turntables, on the other hand, are abundant, inexpensive, and of generally high quality.
Vintage turntables, on the other hand, are abundant, inexpensive, and of generally high quality.
Vintage turntables, on the other hand, are abundant, inexpensive, and of generally high quality.
The processor is a device that takes encoded audio data from a CD, DVD, or Blu-Ray player and splits it into its component parts (left front, center, right rear, et cetera).  Most processors offer several decoding options, as well as effects like rev
The processor is a device that takes encoded audio data from a CD, DVD, or Blu-Ray player and splits it into its component parts (left front, center, right rear, et cetera). Most processors offer several decoding options, as well as effects like rev
The pre-amplifier raises the energy level of the electronic audio signal coming from a source (CD player, Blu-Ray, turntable), and sends it to the power amplifier.
The pre-amplifier raises the energy level of the electronic audio signal coming from a source (CD player, Blu-Ray, turntable), and sends it to the power amplifier.
The power amplifier raises the energy level of the electric audio signal dramatically - so much so that the signal causes a heavy magnet inside a speaker to move back and forth along a shaft of coiled wire.
The power amplifier raises the energy level of the electric audio signal dramatically - so much so that the signal causes a heavy magnet inside a speaker to move back and forth along a shaft of coiled wire.
Don't forget this critical piece of high-tech equipment!  Seriously, where you sit, and where your guests will sit, should impact your choice of products and the overall system design.
Don't forget this critical piece of high-tech equipment! Seriously, where you sit, and where your guests will sit, should impact your choice of products and the overall system design.

The three ways audio systems are packaged

The diagram above shows all the components that are (or usually are) part of a home theater system. But go into your local Best Buy and check out their home theaters. A lot of them don't have nearly as many parts as what's in that diagram. That's because most home theaters on the market today are packaged into all-in-one systems, with many of the component parts shown above packed into a single box. Then again, most people know a hi-fi geek with a stereo worth more than his car - and 99% of the time, it's built from separate components. So what are the trade-offs between putting multiple components in the same box, or splitting them all up into separates?

All-in-one systems

All-in-one systems, like those from Bang & Olufsen or the Bose 321 system, contain everything (except the TV) you need for a home theater. The CD player, pre-amps, surround processor, power amps, and tuner are typically in a single box, and most all-in-ones include front, center, rear, and sub-woofer speakers matched to the equipment in the box.

Advantages of All-in-Ones:

  • You know all the parts work well together
  • These systems deliver the biggest bang for the buck of anything new, at least on paper.
  • The easiest to set up and calibrate.

Disadvantages of All-in-Ones:

  • Upgrading a single component can be difficult or impossible. Many all-in-ones have proprietary connections and wires to prevent customers from integrating 3rd party components into the system.
  • Often made with the least expensive materials and designs.
  • Budget pricing on new all-in-ones means these are often the worst-performing systems (though not worse than a badly put-together separates system, or one with poor components).

New Separate Systems

New separate systems are usually put together by you or your salesperson, or both. You're more likely to find a good selection of new separates either online or in a stereo/theater specialty store. If you don't know much about audio systems and you want to go the separates route, I advise you find a recommended local dealer who is known to be trustworthy and helpful.

When buying separates, you'll need to consider what type of CD/DVD./Blu-Ray player, receiver, and speakers you'll get. While I can't cover this here, you need to be sure the speakers and the receiver are matched to each other and your listening space. I will soon be drafting a hub in this Hub Group that go into the topic of compatibility in more detail. Also, your salesperson can help you match each component to the others.

Advantages of Separates

  • You can upgrade single components; you're not locked into an all-or-nothing affair as with all-in-one systems.
  • Each component is purpose built and doesn't share resources with other components (for example, the power supply).
  • Components separated in space don't electromagnetically interfere with each other as much as those packed in close to each other.
  • Usually, separates tend to be made of higher quality materials and use more expensive and better-sounding designs.

Disadvantages of Separates

  • More expensive (at least on paper) than an equivalent-sounding all-in-one system.
  • More expensive than pre-owned vintage separates, but still don't sound any better than vintage.
  • More confusing, more opportunities to build a mismatched system. Harder to calibrate to your room. Easier to buy a lemon and/or pay too much.

Vintage pre-owned separates: safest choice for novices; best value for all

Vintage pre-owned separates ("vintage gear") represent the best value, and arguably the safest choice for anybody with even a modicum of familiarity with the home theater schematic shown earlier in this Hub. Why is vintage such a great value, and how can it be "safe" for novices to buy vintage?

First of all, vintage gear is pre-owned, so it is often priced at less than 50% of it's price when new.  Sure, I'm suggesting you buy something that's ten, twenty, even forty years old.  But age is but a number when it comes to hi-fi equipment: electronics in general will last thousands of years if well cared-for (a notable exception to this rule is the rubber or foam ring that surrounds the speaker cone. The rings can become brittle over many decades, but are easily and cheaply replaceable for any speaker. 

But isn't new gear better than old gear?  Actually, not really.  The technology behind the best audio gear hasn't changed in forty years, since the invention of the transistor. Again, speakers are an exception. Materials engineering, computer acoustic modeling, and precision manufacturing have led to new design principles that were inconceivable in the 1980s. Still, $500 spent on "vintage" speakers from 1999 will get you MUCH farther toward nirvana than $500 spent on new gear online or at Best Buy. And let's not forget: if you're willing to reach all the way back to the 1970s you can find some wicked cool designs.

Can vintage gear really be safe for novices to buy? On the surface, it seems that purchasing esoteric pieces without warranties on the secondary market would be a job for experts only. But in fact you will find it easier to find the true gems of the audio world by buying vintage.  As with any product, the long-term quality and reputation of any piece of hi-fi gear accrues over years or decades.  In the case of hi-fi, many of a product's best performances, worst flaws, and especially its sound quality aren't fully understood and communicated to the marketplace until at least a year or two after it launches. 

Think about it: when you buy new, the only people who know anything substantial about the product on offer are the manufacturers and possibly retailers.  The only information available is that which they make so.  As for the mainstream hi-fi media: ever wondered how every single product reviewed "sounds as good or better than [insert product category] costing twice as much"?

Guess what really sounds as good or better than products costing twice as much: pre-owned vintage audio.  When you start your search for a vintage hi-fi or home theater, your information will come from numerous sources: user forums and review sites, the length of time a product was on the market, and the product literature that was once the only source of information available.   You can check products you find in the market against what dozens of users have to say, on sites like Audio Review and Audio Karma.

For a sense of the kind of information available on vintage gear, visit my website www.vintageaudiophile.com.  Each product listing there includes links to reviews, manuals, and other information not available on new products. 

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Comments 1 comment

Basky02 4 years ago

Hi Isaac, Your articles are good. Learned a lot from here. I am new to this forum and to the home theater world. I have a question to ask, Power Wattage.... is this the same as the input power I mean the AC wattage. The reason I am asking is I want to size my Power Line Voltage Conditioner. There are Input wattage rating on my equipment but based on your discussion about the speaker wattage i am a bit lost, can you please explain the difference. Thank you.

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